Resilient Neighborhoods: Residents help shape Mack Ave. streetscape vision led by Eastside nonprofit

With a spate of streetscape redevelopment projects in and surrounding Detroit, many residents and local business owners are excited to see the benefits they may yield. As planning nears completion, optimism is high for one of the newest redevelopment efforts: the Mack Avenue corridor between Conner Street and Moross Road. This area, a heavily traveled broad four-lane section of the avenue, is a primary thoroughfare between the Grosse Pointes and the City of Detroit. Reimagining the corridor is a breath of fresh air for many community members.

Detroiter Denise Elam, the owner of Energy 4 Life Health Food Store, hopes the work done on Mack will be as inviting as other streetscape projects she's seen. “I’m excited and want my turn,” she says. “And I think it should drive foot traffic.”

But what might streetscape redevelopment look like? Multiple commercial corridors throughout the city are seeing the results of the City of Detroit’s $80 million investment to improve walkability and access in these areas. Taking the 2020 Livernois “Avenue of Fashion” as an example, Mack Avenue could see improved pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, altered parking, improved signage, street furniture, a slimming of lanes known as a “road diet,” and more attractive business access. 
Detroit planners view the streetscapes as an opportunity to create a "beautiful corridor where neighborhood businesses can thrive and where people feel safe and welcomed," according to a City of Detroit website. Officials hope to encourage multiple modes of transportation, including walking, biking, and riding transit.   

In partnership with Wayne County (as Mack Avenue is a county-controlled road), the city has put the nonprofit Eastside Community Network (ECN) in the driver's seat for these proposed changes. “The funding [for community outreach and project planning] actually came to us; we were funded to do the planning process,”  says Angela Wilson, the Chief Operating Officer of ECN. “The city is part of it, but we received the funding to complete this particular part of it.”

Matt Mergener, owner of Apartment Disco, an Italian-themed disco bar at 15421 Mack Ave., is pleased with how the nonprofit handles community outreach. “ECN does a great job reaching out to businesses and neighborhoods in Detroit to let us know when public comment meetings are happening and to break down the development options,” he says.

Matt Merenger is the owner of Apartment Disco on Mack Avenue.

John Roach, Mayor Duggan's Director of Media Relations, says that outreach work is essential in implementing a streetscape project. “Extensive community engagement is a central value of the administration that has worked extremely well in developing projects that harmonize with neighborhoods and have strong support of residents because they reflect their sensibilities,” he says.

While ECN, the county, and the city play substantial roles in the project and in soliciting feedback from the community, they are not the only organizations with active planning concerns. Detroit shares a city line with several of the Grosse Pointes on this corridor, where construction will directly affect residents and business owners. 

Jenny Boettcher, president and executive director of the Grosse Pointe Chamber of Commerce, has heard positive feedback from businesses about the proposed improvements along Mack Ave.  “The streetscape will create a unified, strong sense of place for the businesses, residents, and visitors,” she says. “Although street level construction poses significant interruptions to the businesses in proximity, and can lead to many challenges.”

Despite his enthusiasm for the upcoming streetscape improvements, Mergener echoes this anticipated inconvenience.

“People will still come, especially if they live within walking distance, but will they come back the following week if they know the easy and free parking on both sides of Mack doesn't exist during the construction?" he says. "It is an unfortunate reality, but parking still matters in the city, even just five or six spaces in front of a business.”

Steve Koss

Even those community members without direct economic stakes in the Mack Avenue corridor redevelopment acknowledge this inconvenience. “As with any project, construction will inevitably cause traffic delays and difficulties accessing area businesses,” says Cornerstone Village resident Andy Cooney. “[But] I’m hopeful the results will be worth the wait as the sidewalks along Mack are often in disrepair, and there’s not a lot separating pedestrians or cyclists from cars on the road. Adding some green space along the corridor will go a long way to making the area more appealing.”

ECN says they will complete the initial planning process this month and expects engineering work to begin soon. However, the City of Detroit and Wayne County have not yet announced an expected construction start. Despite an unclear timeline, Mergener says he’s excited about what the planned streetscaping will mean for the East Side neighborhoods it will impact.

“Mack is such a connecting point between communities. It's nice to see Mack get the love that other areas like Midtown and West Village have received,” he says.

Resilient Neighborhoods is a reporting and engagement series that examines how Detroit residents and community development organizations are working together to strengthen local neighborhoods. It's made possible with funding from the Kresge Foundation.

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Read more articles by Dan B. Jones.